The Guardian • Issue #1975

“It makes me feel shattered”

Dylan Voller reflects on Indigenous incarceration

Systemic abuse in Northern Territory (NT) detention received widespread attention in July 2016 after the ABC’s Four Corners’ exposé “Australia’s Shame” sparked global outrage and prompted the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT.

Abuse exposed included the use of prolonged solitary confinement of children, strip searches and sexual abuse, extreme physical violence including chokeholds and intimidation.

Solitary confinement of youths contravenes the United Nations Convention against Torture, with critics arguing that various other abuses enacted in NT detention similarly constitute torture.

The image of a masked Dylan Voller chained to a chair symbolised “Australia’s Shame”: the systematic oppression of Indigenous Australians in the Australian criminal system.

The Guardian – Workers’ Weekly interviewed Dylan Voller about his thoughts on the expansion of the Don Dale Centre, the recent crackdown on youth in the NT, the Royal Commission, the Australian criminal justice system, and how it can be fixed.

Voller, 24, is a Ngarrenjerri man from Alice Springs, a young activist, a man with a vision, and an artist.

The Northern Territory government and the law-firm representing young people mistreated in youth detention, including the Don Dale Centre, in the Territory have agreed to a $35mil class-action settlement, with a Federal Court hearing to approve the final settlement scheduled for November. The Territory government failed their bid to keep the settlement amount private.

The settlement will be distributed amongst up to 1,200 youths who experienced mistreatment while detained between August 2006 and November 2017 based on the length of their incarceration, the extent of their mistreatment, and the number of victims registering for compensation. The payout includes the law firm’s legal fees and administrative costs, which are to be determined by the court.

Voller says he has “mixed feelings” about the settlement but agrees that “all kids deserve to be paid out for it.” He was ruled out of the class action due to a clause in a previous $60,000 private settlement surrounding certain incidents, including the restraint chair, that forbade future litigation.

This comes after the Territory government announced in June that $2.5mil would be spent to upgrade and expand the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, despite the Royal Commission recommending its closure “within three months” in its final report in November 2017.

“It’s like they’re opening it up because they know that more indigenous kids are going,” Voller says. “They want to make it bigger. They want to make it so that they can fit more kids. How about [instead of] trying to make it so that they can fit more kids, they start working to not have as many kids in there?

“I think it’s a waste of money. [The money could fund] different really good programs throughout the whole Northern Territory [… for] different communities in the Northern Territory to help young kids before they’re even needing to go to a jail system.

“You got BushMob Aboriginal Corporation that could help with funding for upgrades to bigger houses out bush. They do horse riding therapy, counselling, they do all sorts of things. Even more sports programs, put more funding into that. There’s a really good skateboarding program that I’ve seen that they’ve got out in the communities in Alice Springs, Spinifex Skating with an Indigenous man from out there.”

A petition launched by Amnesty International opposing the expansion of Don Dale has received more than 12,500 signatures and is set to be tabled in the NT parliament for debate.

When asked his opinion on the petition, Voller says “I think it’s good. Don Dale does need to be shut down. There has to be a facility for a nature of kids that commit serious offences like murder, rape, stuff like that. There has to be a facility. But it shouldn’t be a facility like a jail. It should be like a facility where it’s secure, where they can’t escape. But it shouldn’t be about bashing and continuously punishing them.”

Voller stresses the need for rehabilitative justice.

“Punishment is, by the law, sentencing someone to do their time. Being in jail and having their rights stripped away from them, that’s enough of a punishment. So, while we’re in there, they should be giving the people help and bettering themselves so that when they get out, they’re less likely to do something again.”

The NT Labor government is preparing for an increase in youth detainees after it passed laws that include making it harder for youth to be granted bail, reducing access to diversion programs, and increasing police discretion at the expense of the courts.

The laws reverse changes implemented upon recommendation of the Royal Commission and were rushed through on the grounds of “community safety” despite pleas from the NT Children’s Commissioner, as well as health and legal groups to consult on the changes.

Voller believes that this “tough-on-crime” approach is disingenuous and stresses the need for local Indigenous voices at the forefront of the justice system.

“That’s no crackdown on youth crime,” says Voller. “If they want to crack down on youth crime, how about they start getting their local elders and communities into programs for kids because that’s how you right them. No young kid will turn around and disrespect one of the old nannas or uncles.”

Indigenous Australians make of eighty-four per cent of the total NT prisoner population and ninety-four per cent of the juvenile detention population. Eighty-three per cent of youths in NT detention are unsentenced. The number of youths in detention in the NT has already nearly doubled in the past year, with critics stating that the changes will further increase youth detention.

Dylan believes this is the result of systemic racism in the criminal and judicial systems.

“People in Alice Springs are targeted one hundred percent more,” Voller says. “You go into a bottle shop, there’s a police officer standing there at that door, where you walk out. If you’re a blackfella and you live in a housing house or Aboriginal community, they check your ID. If your address is one of those, you’re banned, you’re not allowed to buy alcohol. That’s racist in itself in the NT intervention.

“How come an Indigenous person in Alice Springs that works five days a week, nine to five, or works hard to earn money, but lives out in an Indigenous community or homeland or town housing, they’re not allowed to buy a six pack after work and have a drink like a white businessman?”

Voller highlights the impact of societal racism on Indigenous youths.

“We’re made to feel like we don’t fit into society. We’re made to feel like we’re not good enough. […] Kids and that are reacting to racist stuff or whatever is going on at home. They’re reacting to all the negativity and taking it out in a negative way,” he says.

That many recommendations of the Royal Commission are still yet to be enacted, with others since refused or wound back amidst increasing “tough-on-crime” rhetoric and youth detention rates demonstrates that a cultural shift has not occurred.

Of the 218 recommendations made by the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, only 158 have been implemented completely.

The Northern Territory’s Families Minister Kate Worden claims that an additional 57 are under way, while an additional three have not yet commenced.

In a press conference, Worden refused to directly address young victims mistreated in NT care when prompted. Instead, she inferred that the matter was settled with the Royal Commission, saying “I think all of those matters were looked at intensely by the Royal Commission.”

The inquiry’s final report found “shocking and systemic failures” over many years that were known yet ignored.

“The systems failed to comply with the basic binding human rights standards in the treatment of children and young people”, the report said.

The Commission upheld accounts of abuse including physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, as well as the bribing or daring of youths to humiliate themselves or physically abuse other inmates.

The 218 recommendations included increasing the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to 12; creating a Children’s Commissioner with access to detention centres and detainees; banning the use of force and tear gas; overhauling policies regarding bail, body searches, isolation, and transfer; as well as focussing on preventative justice.

However, no charges were laid over the findings, prompting former NT Corrections Minister John Elferink to outright deny the allegations raised in the Royal Commission.

“We have acted and always acted when in government with absolute probity, something Four Corners had explained to them at length, something they chose not to run with, and as a consequence they put out a story saying that we tortured children, that we acted with barbarism in our hearts and it made comparisons to Abu Ghraib,” he told the NT News. “All of those things are indictable offences; none of that was found to be true.”

When asked his thoughts on the Royal Commission, Voller says, “I think they got a lot of evidence out there and they got it all heard by now. Nothing has been done though. No recommendations have been implemented. Nothing. It’s the same with the black deaths in custody one. Nothing’s happened.”

Voller sees these issues as interlinked and the result of a systematically racist Australian government.

“They’ve changed it into ways they can get away with it and hide it into regimes and policies that they know affect Indigenous people more than non-Indigenous people,” explains Voller.

“They’ve got all these racist policies and regimes up in parliament, that they’ve put into parliament, that they know is going to target Indigenous people. That’s the way that they will be racist and will continue to be racist until Indigenous voices have been brought to parliament and get more power over the country and land that we own.”

He goes on to compare the different responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and black deaths in custody.

“I think the government jumps quick and it’s jumping all about for COVID,” he says. “People are dying from COVID. It’s serious, people are dying. But what about all the people who have died with deaths in custody. How come there’s no noise being made about that? How come there’s no one jumping up and saying, ‘we need something done about it now.’ We need a cure for all these deaths in custody. It’s the same thing.

“Why [isn’t] the life of a black man or a black woman who has died in jail, not the same thing as someone dying from COVID. Why can’t they spend all the money that they’ve spent getting the vaccines for COVID? Why haven’t they spent half of that implementing the recommendations from the deaths in custody royal commission?”

The Guardian – Workers’ Weekly asked Voller what core message he wants people to understand and take away from his story.

“I want to spread awareness about what’s going on in juvenile detention centres across Australia. Not only Don Dale but around Australia and even adult prisons.

“I’ve started up making some [shut down Don Dale] shirts [to spread awareness about Don Dale and about my story]. Jimmy Barnes sent a photo of him wearing a shirt. Also, this morning, boxer Jeff Horn [purchased a shirt].

“Also, [I’d like] them to follow my journey while I’m making my music to heal and also talk about my life.

“People have been messaging me. It’s good to keep on gaining support as I go.”

You can find dylan voller shirts and music via

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More